Microsoft Word was ruled in violation of an XML-related patent by a Texas judge, who ordered Microsoft to stop selling its productivity suite and pay a small Canadian company, i4i, nearly $300 million. However, the lawsuit could also present trouble down the road for XML-based OpenDocument Format, an open-source alternative for spreadsheets, word-processing and other productivity applications.
The court ruling that Microsoft
violated an XML-related patent held by i4i, a small Canadian company, could threaten not only Redmond,
but also the open-source community.
"If the validity of the patent is upheld then the immediate
question is whether this will also impact ODF [OpenDocument Format]," Brian
Prentice, an analyst with Gartner, wrote in an Aug. 12 blog
. "If so, then this turns out to be a significantly more important
issue and one which will crystallize the fury of the
The XML-based OpenDocument Format was originally designed as an open-source alternative for
spreadsheets, word-processing and other productivity applications. Over the
course of its development, ODF has found itself integrated into both open-source
and proprietary software; Microsoft
plans to port the ODF support originally added to Office 2007 in SP2 over to
, allowing users to save files in ODF format and open ODF
documents in Office applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Open-source
productivity suites such as OpenOffice.org also rely on the format.
While XML is a public-domain format, and i4i's patent focuses on
"custom XML," a court ruling that solidifies i4i's position as a
leverager of the technology
could potentially allow it to launch patent-infringement lawsuits
applications such as the upcoming ODF 1.2, which will reportedly rely
custom XML format similar to that already present in Microsoft Office
That could open a company utilizing ODF 1.2 or similar
technology to a lawsuit akin to the one bludgeoning Microsoft. On Aug. 11, a
U.S. District Court in East Texas filed a permanent injunction against
Microsoft, banning the company from "selling, offering to sell, and/or importing
in or into the United States any Infringing and Future Word Products that have
the capability of opening a .XML, .DOCX or .DOCM file ('an XML file') containing custom XML."
Conceivably, this could yank both Microsoft Word 2003 and
Microsoft Word 2007 from store shelves within 60 days. In
addition, the judge leveled fines against Microsoft to the tune of nearly $300
, not exactly a drop in the proverbial bucket during a period of
declining quarterly revenues. However, Microsoft fully intends to appeal the
verdict and the related injunction, meaning that the case will likely drag on
well past that two-month mark.
But Microsoft may also have an escape, thanks to a patent
issued to it on Aug. 4 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Patent
describes a "word-processing document stored in a single XML file that
may be manipulated by applications that understand XML." If integrated
into Word, that technology could conceivably allow Microsoft to
sidestep the complaint from i4i.
"There is another interpretation that I fear will be lost in
the noise," Brian Prentice wrote in his note. "That is some introspective
consideration of whether there is actually a rampant disregard in the software
industry for other's property rights. If it is not just .docx but also ODF that
infringes then that could be seen as some pretty significant oversight,
potentially even arrogance, on the part of Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and
"Given that Microsoft was aware of i4i's patents," Prentice
added, "one wonders why they didn't just buy them (at a significantly reduced
price then what they might end up paying now) and then target ODF for license
agreements like they're doing with their patent infringement claims against
East Texas has a history of being the place for small
companies to file patent lawsuits against IT giants, but most of those cases
tend to quietly fade away. There are signs, however, that the i4i judgment could
have a far wider ripple effect than initially thought.